Thoughts about the proposed TUSD Multicultural Curriculum

by David Safier

Drafts of the proposed curriculum for TUSD's new multicultural courses for high schools have been released, covering courses for grades 9, 11 and 12. You can find links to the 11 draft documents on Three Sonorans.

This is complex, controversial material which I haven't looked at in the depth it deserves or discussed with others, so what you'll read here are preliminary thoughts. I reserve my Emersonian right ("A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines") to change my mind on any of these issues without notice.

My sense is, the curricula for the 11 courses — or at least 10 of the 11 courses — are good starting points for teachers. They combine prescriptive elements — topics to be covered and objectives to be met — with lots of examples of ways teachers can achieve the curricula's goals. Teachers for any of these courses have lots of latitude in the materials and approaches they use within the general guidelines. It's easy to overlook the teachers' latitude because most of the "Explanations and Examples" under each broad subject heading begin with the phrase, "Students will." People who aren't familiar with school jargon might mistakenly think that's a mandate that teachers must have students perform all the tasks on the list. In fact, the "Students will" phrasing is one I began seeing in the 1970's under the heading of "behavioral objectives." The purpose is to describe what students will do and what they will learn rather than stating a lofty, abstract goal. Each of the examples says to teachers, "Here's what the students will do if you choose to use this approach." No teacher could possibly go through the whole cafeteria menu of "Students will" examples for each course, nor would anyone want to.

I also don't get the sense that teachers are limited to teaching only the items mentioned in the curricula. Since all the courses are to be taught from a multicultural viewpoint or from a Mexican-American or African-American viewpoint (the U.S. History and U.S. Government courses have 3 separate curricula, one for each viewpoint), those are the aspects of the courses that are emphasized in the curricula. It's safe to assume a social studies teacher knows how to teach a standard U.S. History or Government course, so these curricula give teachers guidelines for infusing the courses with a specific viewpoint. If there's any question, the State Standards and the Common Core Standards are listed side-by-side with the Explanations and Examples.

I see two problems in the curricula. One is the choice of politically charged language to describe some of the elements of the courses. When the people who wrote the curricula use terms like "subjugation," "oppression," "exploitation" and "wealthy elite," they're waving red flags in front of conservative bulls, begging them to charge. Not only that, they're giving ammunition to the enemies of multicultural education who can hold up these words and phrases and say to the general public, "See? They're communists who hate America!" I have no problem with the terms myself — they're clear and descriptive — but these curricula are written to be seen by the broader community and to be used by teachers of all TUSD students. The people writing the curricula need to step out of their linguistic comfort zones and use language which expresses similar ideas in less divisive terms.

My second problem is with the curriculum for the 9th grade, semester long course, "Culture, Identity and Transformation — A Culturally Relevant Viewpoint," which is required for all freshmen. The course has a lofty goal, which is to make students more aware of the variety of cultural influences which have shaped who they are and, by extension, to understand that others might be shaped by other cultural influences. The hope, I think, is that this understanding will help students use their self-knowledge to reach higher and achieve more in their schooling and their lives than they might otherwise. I applaud the concept, but when a teacher reads through the curriculum for specific activities or texts, there's no there there. It's all concepts. Maybe that's because the course hasn't been fleshed out. But even with more meat added to the curriculum, the course will only be successful with a teacher who has a substantial understanding of psychology, sociology and anthropology. If a school can handpick a few teachers who have the sensitivity and expertise to pull off this curriculum, it could be a terrific course, but if people without the necessary background teach the course, it could be at best a waste of students' time, or at worst a disaster.

Overall, the draft curricula have far more positives than negatives to them. No doubt there are going to be some major battles fought over their content and language from the right and the left. I wouldn't be surprised to see Huppenthal use them as centerpieces for his "Beware the Brown Hordes!" campaign for Ed Supe. What comes out of the fireworks is anyone's guess.

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